SU Abroad students detail experiences during Paris terrorist attacks
Courtesy of Samantha Pupatelli
PARIS — Just before sunset on Friday, 25 Syracuse University students stepped off a bus and found themselves standing at the base of the Eiffel Tower. It was the first day of a weekend trip to Paris organized by the SU London center, where the students are studying for the fall semester.
The iconic French monument was the final stop on a bus tour that took them to Parisian sites such as the Arch of Mankind, Napoleon’s Tomb and the Palace of Versailles. The end of the tour meant they were free to wander the city as they pleased. Most, if not all, of them stayed near the Eiffel Tower before making their way to the Louvre, one of the most famous museums in France.
None of them knew that in a few hours, there would be multiple suicide bombings at the Stade de France. They didn’t know that hostages would be taken at the Bataclan concert venue, resulting in 82 casualties. They didn’t know that gunmen in a black vehicle would start shooting at customers at bars and restaurants located just a few minutes away from their hotel.
The whole world knew what was happening in Paris. They didn’t.
• • •
Linda Kalnina was sitting in a restaurant in Paris when she checked her phone and saw missed calls from administrators and staff members at SU London.
“I knew it was sort of not a good sign, because usually when we do the field trips, our phones are pretty silent,” said Kalnina, field studies coordinator at SU London.
Kalnina was sitting with Linda Harkness, the health and wellness manager at SU London, and the other chaperone for the school’s Paris trip. When they heard about restaurant shootings near the Place de la République, they immediately called the hotel, only to be told by the main desk attendant that it was just a “small shooting” and was nothing to worry about.
Regardless of the shooting’s magnitude, its proximity to the hotel couldn’t be ignored. Kalnina began calling the students on the trip one by one while Harkness sat across from her with a pen, marking off which students answered their phone and which calls went straight to voicemail. They repeated this routine until they got hold of everyone.
“The worst was when I called Charlotte (Klass). She picked up the phone, but then a second later, her tone changed 180 degrees completely,” Kalnina said.
She said they were getting evacuated, and the only thing we could say to them was, ‘OK, be safe, stay in touch and get back to the hotel.'Linda Kalnina
Klass, a junior child and family studies major, was at the opposite end of the Place de la République where one of the shootings occurred. She and three other girls had just sat down and ordered at a restaurant when Kalnina called her.
About five minutes later, officers dressed in full riot gear and holding large guns came inside. Klass said they began speaking in French, and everyone at the restaurant simultaneously got up and started to leave.
“I just hung up the phone on Linda (Kalnina),” she said. “The girls and I just got up and grabbed each other and began pushing our way out the door, and then ran and power-walked back to the hotel.”
Courteney Larocca, a junior magazine journalism major, was with Klass and remembers seeing large crowds of people and hearing the sirens of numerous police cars and ambulances upon exiting the restaurant.
“Luckily the mob was really all behind us. We got out ahead of everyone but at one point we couldn’t even figure out what was happening because none of us spoke French,” Larocca said.
I had no idea how severe it was until we got back to our hotel.Courteney Larocca
Within minutes, they reached the Hotel Americain around the corner from the Place de la République. Larocca said Kalnina called another girl in their group and then became assured of their safety.
They spent the rest of the night contacting family, friends and fellow SU students to see where everyone was. They packed their suitcases as a precaution, and continued to research information about the attacks online, since the news on TV was in French.
I'm safe now but I was very close to the shootings and I've never been more terrified in my life everyone please be safe #ParisShooting
— courteney larocca (@quart10knee) November 13, 2015
“We can see the death toll rising on the TV and after each break we’d just see more numbers, because that’s the only thing that we could understand on TV: the numbers,” Klass said.
• • •
After getting off the bus, Jordan Wright and four of his friends decided to take the elevator to the top of the Eiffel Tower to enjoy a view of the city at twilight.
They were having a fun time — they drank hot chocolate, ate escargot and visited the Louvre. Wright said when they got on the Metro to head back to the hotel, it passed République, the stop where they were supposed to get off.
That’s when it got serious. We got off at Belleville, two stops past République, and we smelled a vicious amount of gunpowder in the air.Jordan Wright, a junior psychology major
When their group walked the streets and tried to figure out where they were, Wright said they realized that they were right in the middle of what they referred to as the “danger zone.”
Every police officer they approached for directions told them there was no way they would be able to make it back to their hotel that night. Police told them they could keep trying, but every street was going to be shut down.
Their group reached an area of the barricade that police closed for traffic, but hadn’t yet closed to pedestrians. Desperately, they ran through it. By the time they ran across the street and reached the inside of the perimeter, they were just a few blocks away from the hotel. Levels of fear rose every time a motorcycle or vehicle drove by them.
What they didn’t realize was how close they were to the attacks.
“We literally walked by and stood in front of a site where 20 people got shot, one of the restaurants that was by the square,” said Dan Kalter, a political science major at Wake Forest University who is studying abroad through SU London. “We were looking at the map afterward and thought, ‘We had to have walked by a block of this site.’”
It was almost 11:30 p.m. by the time the group got back to the hotel, marking a 90 minute journey to get to the hotel. They thought they would be the last people to return, but they weren’t.
• • •
Annika Gullahorn and Lucy Rose Morgan also decided to go up the Eiffel Tower on Friday night — but by the stairs. After enjoying the view from the top, the two junior acting majors decided to visit the Louvre, meet up with a friend they had met in Vienna, as well as walk to the Notre Dame Cathedral area to do some sightseeing.
They, too, boarded the Metro and were taken past the République stop. But after getting on the train to try to reach République by another line, they found themselves at Gare du Nord, where they were ushered out of the train station by police officers on the platform and train, all yelling “Exit, exit!” in French. The two girls held hands and sprinted out of the station.
We thought it was a bomb threat in the way that they were yelling at us. We thought something was about to go off.Annika Gullahorn
Gullahorn and Morgan used the maps that SU London provided to try to get back to the hotel through sidestreets, seeing as the main streets were blocked off. Their phones were dead, so they didn’t have any way of finding the news. But there was also no way to contact their family, friends or the school chaperones to let them know where they were. They had to keep going.
At some point, a French woman who spoke English gave them directions to the hotel. She asked the girls if they knew about the shootings, but gave no details as to what exactly happened. She told them one thing: get indoors, immediately.
By the time Gullahorn and Morgan got between a few blocks from the hotel, the streets were completely empty. Empty cars sat in the middle of the street, abandoned by their drivers. It was this ghostly scene that prompted the two of them to run the rest of the way back to the hotel.
At half past midnight, Gullahorn and Morgan were the last two students to return to the hotel that night. Morgan’s dad, who had been calling the hotel all night, called the front desk just as his daughter walked in.
That was the moment that Morgan and Gullahorn learned about the attacks that happened throughout Paris that night.
Morgan said it’s hard to fully come to terms with an event so grand, and so close to where she was. It’s unfathomable, she said, the magnitude of the suffering that Parisians have to experience.
“I’m not really a religious person, but I feel like there was something watching over us that night,” Gullahorn said. “I’m just so heartbroken about all the people who lost their lives and the families they left behind, and the repercussions this will have on the world.
• • •
Throughout Friday night, administrators and staff members at SU London remained in contact not only with the chaperones and students on the school-sanctioned trip, but also with other students who came to Paris on their own trips. Everyone was advised to remain where they were and stay indoors until it was safe to return to London.
Harkness said she has never experienced anything as serious as the Paris terror attacks. She and Kalnina said despite the events, the way the students showed they cared for them and for each other made their jobs as chaperones a lot easier.
I felt immensely proud of the way all the students behaved.Linda Harkness
“I was proud and also immensely grateful that nobody was freaking out or having a hissy fit,” Harkness said. “For so many reasons, if we could have handpicked a group of students, I’m not sure we could have picked a better one.”
Alexa Abdalla, a senior English and textual studies major, said her heart sank when she first realized how close the attacks were. Abdalla always wanted to visit France, and because she isn’t French, she said she never felt a real connection to the country.
That is, until she lived through this tragedy with the people of Paris.
“It wasn’t like tourists and citizens. It was just people not knowing what was happening,” she said. “We lived through it together and were confused and scared together, and that’s something that unites us.”
Published on November 15, 2015 at 10:31 pm
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